More funds for Delta highways?

As Congress and the White House prepare for a conference to work out disagreements on the proposed federal highway bill, a final resolution is poised to significantly help the Delta.

Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council, said the council is “very pleased” with the bill, which could pump millions more dollars than anticipated into improving Mississippi roads, including the construction of a planned superhighway and creating new jobs.

“We think we are in a perfect position, we are exactly where we need to be,” Morgan said.

The House and Senate have agreed on a $280-billion bill, one that is about $11 billion, or about 4 percent, higher than President Bush proposed.

Since 2003, when the last year of a six-year spending plan for roads expired, Congress has wrangled over how much money should be allocated in a new five-year bill.

While the president has threatened to veto the bill because it exceeds his outlined price limit, Morgan is optimistic that the bill will be approved in nearly its current form.

“We’re doubtful that the conferees will back out of the commitments they have already made in the bill, and the White House, though it will definitely have a prominent role in the talks, wants this bill to get passed too,” he said.

A specific portion of the bill, called the corridors and borders provision, would re-authorize four-year funds for construction of Interstate 69 through Mississippi and the Delta, which accounts for between $150 million and $200 million in subsidies. That amount would represent a substantial increase for Mississippi.

“The big issue is would we get more money in this bill, and that looks promising,” Morgan said. “If we do, it will be tremendous.”

The conference finish in June, but likely will wrap up in August.

Morgan said an unexpected revision of a part of the overall bill, if approved, could also be beneficial to the Magnolia State.

That provision calls for a change in the federal gas-tax formula — which funds the National Highway Trust Fund — used by Washington to reimburse states for road and bridge improvements. While drivers in all states pay a little more than 18 cents for every dollar toward the tax, some states get a larger share of reimbursement than other states.

In 1998, Mississippi’s gas tax reimbursement was increased from about 84 percent to about 91 percent. The new proposal would increase the amount to about 95 percent.

Also, Morgan said, Delta Council representatives are watching for any available funding that would be earmarked toward improving Highway 6 between Clarksdale and Batesville. He said such development, though, is doubtful.

Morgan noted, however, that two members of the Mississippi congressional delegation, Sen. Trent Lott and Rep. Charles Pickering, are directly involved with the conference. “That means Mississippi will be well represented,” he said.

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